The Michigan men’s basketball team’s defense had to dig deep to come away with a win against Texas on Tuesday because the offense scored just 53 points.
While the Wolverines struggled to find anything consistent on offense, the Longhorns were just as poor attacking, and Michigan was able to fall back on its defense to find a way in the end.
The Wolverines (7-2) won’t want to stick to that same strategy when they travel to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday to take on No. 2 UCLA (9-0). The Bruins have the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, averaging 97 points per game. They run one of the most high-tempo offenses as well, ranking in the top 10 in possessions per 40 minutes.
Michigan has already played teams that like to score in transition such as Virginia Tech and the Longhorns, and the Wolverines handled both teams well. Michigan ranks 10th in the country in scoring defense.
“I thought we handled the tempo pretty well,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on the Virginia Tech game. “The tempo was at a pace that got us a few times, but not as many times as they’ve been getting other people. (UCLA) is a team that will really run. Some of the teams they’ve played have gotten in that running game with them. We’re still only going to run when we can, but at the same time we have to make sure we take good shots and we make them take hard shots.”
But no opponent the Wolverines have faced to date had as many offensive weapons as the Bruins. All five of UCLA’s starters are putting up double-digit scoring averages, and each can score in a variety of different ways.
UCLA’s offense stems from the point and its star freshman guard Lonzo Ball. The 6-foot-6 guard poses the threat of posting a triple-double every game he takes the floor. Against then-No. 1 Kentucky, Ball put up a stat line of 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
But Ball is still prone to making freshman mistakes. He committed five turnovers while shooting 1-for-5 in the first half of the Kentucky game. Even while making those errors, he was showing off the most impressive facet of his game. The freshman currently leads the nation in assists per game (9.3) to go with his 15 point scoring average.
Complimenting Ball at the post is freshman TJ Leaf, who is also almost averaging a double-double with 17 points and nine rebounds per game. At 6-foot-11, Leaf isn’t just a threat in the paint, he’s an outside shooting threat as well. The freshman, who Beilein once recruited, is currently shooting 67 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His versatility will be a handful for any Michigan defender tasked with guarding him, likely redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson.
“(Leaf) really is not just a 6-(foot)-10 forward,” Beilein said. “He shoots, he passes. Look at his stats right now. For a freshman with a 225-pound body, the way he’s rebounding right now is really impressive in the game.”
Besides Ball and Leaf, UCLA has three other players shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc in guards Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday.
The Bruins can score from just about anywhere on the offensive end, and Beilein realizes no other team will be a better test to see if Michigan’s top-10 scoring defense can hold up.
“(This game is) the ultimate gauge of who we are against a high-level team,” Beilein said. “We got some incredible talent. I think what’s really compelling right now is what Ball and Leaf have done to that team. That was a team that was sub-.500 last year and only lost one player. But those two are just exceptional. “
UCLA’s fast pace will also challenge the Wolverines’ offense. Michigan hasn’t been efficient scoring points on fast breaks or in transition, choosing too often to hold the ball up and go into half-court sets.
While running a half-court offense could slow the Bruins’ attack down, the Wolverines will still need to find a fair share of points on breaks to have a shot at the upset.
“We’re playing too much half-court basketball,” Beilein said. “We have to get up the court. Whether it’s who’s pushing it, right now (senior guard Derrick Walton) has been the only push guy, and he’s even got to do more there. “
Saturday will be Michigan’s last opportunity to measure up against marquee competition before Big Ten play opens, especially defensively. And it will be the best opportunity yet for the Wolverines to make a statement.